Moderation Makes Maple Flavored Magic

Above: Margaretville syrupmaker Mike Porter in his sugar house. 

By Ryan Trapani, Catskill Forest Association

Many of us are aware of winos. I’m not talking about complainers, but those whose palates are well- acquainted with an assortment of grape-wines. They don’t just gulp it down to catch a quick buzz. Ice cubes clinking in your glass of red wine will surely raise an eyebrow with these winy patrons; perhaps even a scowl. Sure, they’ll pour you a glass of wine, but you’ll first have to wait for it. You’ll hear a long story half in French, and the other that assumes you're about to attend a feast for a king. Now that your wine has been given time to breathe, you can finally forget the French and missed salmon dinner with mango salsa by drowning in yeast excrement, or better known as alcohol. Behind each wine’s taste are claimed associations with a plethora of environmental conditions, weather patterns, climate, yeast, and some other magic-making. All I can say, is that wine tends to be better – and the same – by the second or third glass.

Aficionados are not exclusive to wines. They can be found in other circles too. Some maple producers claim their syrup is the best. “After all, Pennsylvania makes the best,” claimed one producer I met on the side of the road. I wanted his syrup not because I was really in need of it, but wanted to add Pennsylvania to my collection of syrups by state. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, since obviously the best syrup is made in the Catskill Mountains! We have calcium-rich soils that are well- drained; conditions that every sugar maple requires and desires; right?

Maple producers in the Berkshires also claim their syrup is the best. I bet even those in Rhode Island claim theirs is the best because of the nearby sea-breeze that “adds an ocean-like flavor.” And we all know too well how special Vermonters believe their syrup is. But what’s that saying again? “Those who think they know it all are very annoying to those of us who do.” Hey, we got to pick on the competition a little bit.

So we all think ours is the best. However, I have noticed that syrup varies tremendously from one producer to the next even here in the Catskills. More specifically, taste can differ from year to year and day to day at the same sugarhouse. Don’t misunderstand. Maple syrup is like ice cream; it’s always good, but some varieties are better. Although taste may vary from season or day, it does seem that the same producers turn out extraordinarily good-tasting syrup, despite similar site conditions or trees in the Catskills or Poconos. What’s up with that?

In January I attended the New York State Maple Conference in Verona. Joel Boutin – Quebec Maple Cooperative – spoke about How to Produce Better Tasting Syrup. Before diving into the chemistry behind maple syrup, he gave a brief history of maple sugaring. It wasn’t too long ago that producers were boiling syrup in large cast iron kettles over smoky fires. Buckets for gathering sap were normal while brace and bit drills were used in place of today’s electric and gas-powered drills. And yet, some maple producers turned out a product that was not only palatable, but delicious. How’d they do that? Vacuum pumped tubing systems, stainless steel evaporators, gathering tanks, filter presses, reverse osmosis filters, and steam-aways have made the process easier today, but not always better tasting. How is that possible? Joel explained that he has tasted syrup that ranged from tasteless to bitter. He has also tasted syrup that was somewhere in between and delicious.

Joel explained that fresh sap out of the tree is pure sucrose. However microbes or bacteria are excited about its emergence too. Microbes begin breaking down the sucrose into glucose. Sucrose, glucose, and fructose are simple sugars. Without getting too technical, the more microbes present, the more sucrose is converted into glucose. Joel began using a glycometer – available at any pharmacy – to test syrup throughout Quebec. He found that he could correlate taste with the amount of glucose present in the syrup; more or less glucose did not translate into better tasting syrup. Instead, it was the “right” amount of glucose that made syrup “the best.”

In other words, some producers had too little bacteria in their sap before boiling, while others had too few bacteria. Some were just too cleanly, while others too dirty. He explained how one producer was so obsessed about cleanliness and keeping cold, clean sap that his syrup was rendered tasteless. In that particular operation, the producer harvested the sap rapidly using vacuum-pumps and white sap lines which reflected heat and kept the sap extremely cool. The sap was boiled right away, and produced a very light color. However, the syrup was tasteless, since microbes had not enough time to break down sucrose into some glucose. On the other hand, another producer might use black lines which absorbed too much heat, stored the sap too long, and produced bitter tasting syrup that had too much glucose.

Joel stressed that it is not so much the color of tubing lines, buckets, or evaporator used that creates too much glucose or sucrose. Instead, it is how these modern – or ancient – appliances are used. In other words, if you like the taste of your syrup, take a glucose reading of the sap right before boiling. (The amount of glucose and sucrose is permanent right before boiling). This reading can serve as your baseline and indicate that everything in your operation is going well. However, if the syrup becomes too strong, something throughout the operation needs more attention in order to reduce microbial growth. If the syrup becomes too weak, the sap needs more time before boiling to take on microbes and glucose and regain a stronger, maple flavor.

The underlying theme of Joel’s talk was that maple syrup can be made delicious using the most rudimentary equipment, or screwed up using the most advanced and modern equipment. It depends on how they are used. So, I guess the old saying holds true in this case, “Everything in moderation.” Don’t be too clean, and don’t be too dirty.